At this point, Jumbo-Visma looks set to not only win the Vuelta a España but to absolutely smother it. Not only do they have stage wins with all three of their leaders, and Sepp Kuss in the red jersey, they also look set to 1-2-3 the entire podium with what would be all three winners of this year’s Grand Tours. No team in history, not even in the days of Eddy Merckx, has ever won all three Grand Tours in a single year, much less swept the podium in one. What we are seeing is undoubtedly unprecedented.
Jumbo-Visma’s dominance is somewhat different to dominances of the past 30 years, especially those of the post-EPO era. The traditional fields for dominance in cycling are the Tour de France (e.g. the Sky or Postal Service eras) or the spring Classics (e.g. Mapei), with often less attention paid to one-week stage races or the other two Grand Tours.
The spring Classics at present are more competitive, but in stage racing, the only rider who seems capable of ever stopping Jumbo at this point seems to be, and perhaps always was, Tadej Pogačar. However it is this Vuelta’s display, especially following a Tour in which Pogačar was not only beaten but was physically and mentally broken, that is starting to leave a bad taste in the mouths of many. The only thing that seems to be damming the ire is the fact that Sepp Kuss, a fan favorite and a loyal and courageous domestique, is in the red jersey. But even I will admit to finding the complete collapse of Remco Evenepoel early in stage 13, and, as a result, an almost-certain Jumbo victory, a bit hard to bear.
Cycling has always had a distaste for dominance, something I attach to its special courtly culture in which dedication, loyalty, hard work, and above all humility are valued. Suffering is reified and a lack of it is considered in some way disingenuous or abnormal. The rider who suffers is more emotionally valued than the rider who rides away with ease. Losers are often moral winners and many less-successful yet more-passionate riders – especially true of the French, such as Poulidor or Pinot – are far more beloved by the public than better riders of their day.
Even within Jumbo itself this chivalric code holds steady. Primož Roglič, for example, is found more palatable even though there was a time when he won everything in sight, because when he loses he loses so spectacularly we end up feeling sorry for him. In the Classics, Wout van Aert starts out as a favorite and yet never seems to deliver in the spring’s two most important cobbled races, Paris-Roubaix or the Tour of Flanders.
Kuss is the platonic ideal of a noble domestique. The loss of the 2020 Tour de France was so unexpected and poignant it is still held as one of contemporary cycling’s cultural reference points even though Jonas Vingegaard has won twice since then. Each of these elements has helped ground Jumbo’s overwhelming success within cycling’s existing obsession with good stories of drama, failure, and redemption.
With the ascendancy of Vingegaard, who both is less charismatic and less volatile than Roglič and who focuses almost entirely on the Tour de France, the balance has shifted from a team that was really, really good, yet still imperfect, to one that seems undefeatable. This is not to say that Vingegaard is uniquely unlikable and all of the fresh dislike towards his team is somehow his fault – he was simply the missing piece Jumbo needed to reach the next step further in what can only be described as a years-long quest for perfection itself.
The problem is, cycling has a history of Icaruses whose goals of unprecedented perfection end, as the myth goes, with flying too close to the sun and careening violently back to earth. This is especially true of the last thirty-five years. The records set during the EPO era and its dramatic collapse, the systemic doping regime at US Postal, the British Cycling/Team Sky affair, all of these seemed to prove that time and time again dominance comes with a Faustian bargain, which, in turn, only further justifies all those nice feelings about glorified losers, moral winners, and helpful servants.
Still, the uncomfortable reality is that skepticism is now a fully embedded part of cycling culture whether we like it or not. That reality is at its clearest as soon as a team or rider truly emerges as dominant. Even new fans will quickly become acclimated to the sport-wide lack of trust, something that is passed down in the sport’s communities by older fans. The fact that there are still new doping cases and police raids doesn’t help either.
So what do we do about all that discomfort and dislike? The prevailing impulse is to rationalize the discomfort away. It’s not that Jumbo is dominating this Vuelta, it’s that Evenepoel is losing it, Mas and Soler were never up to Jumbo level to begin with, and other players like Ayuso and Uijtdebroeks are simply too young and are still developing. We analyze every rider’s position in a time trial, every corner on a crucial descent, every tactic on every stage trying to find reasons to not get the heebie-jeebies.
This is normal and human because we love our athletes, and I believe this is true even of the most guarded of skeptics, for they must watch the sport for some reason other than to reinforce their own bitterness. We want our athletes to be healthy and safe. We want to be able to trust those we put our faith and emotion into and we hate dominance because it makes us feel like we can’t.
We, despite having embraced it, also hate skepticism because we do not know whether that skepticism is based on something real or is merely inherited through the sport’s history and culture. There is something valid to be said of the journalist’s adage, ”if your mom says she loves you, check it out,” about balancing suspicion with being open to good news. One should always be wary of suspicion turning into solely vibes-based accusations. After all, if chivalry was the best cultural legacy of medieval times, then the Inquisition was its worst.
Personally, I grapple with disbelief in many ways. First of all, I sit with it and acknowledge that it’s completely rational to feel this way. Second, I understand that most of my disappointments are narrative. I want a story to be satisfying, to have a great ending. When that’s foiled, I hate it, but that has nothing to do with the riders, their cleanness, their morals, or their actions on the bike and more to do with my own writerly desires and my collective participation in cycling’s culture and systems of belief.
I think that overall, skepticism is healthy and good, itself a defense mechanism against being hurt by others. It is a byproduct of love for a flawed sport. Should Jumbo turn out to be the cleanest team to have ever ridden they still wouldn’t be able to atone for the sins of the past. I sit with my skepticism and have to ground myself in what is known and so far the only thing that’s known is the positive doping test of a young rider, and performances that are at times otherworldly, which, in the end, don’t say anything conclusive because they can be rationalized through other means.
And it is true: the sport has changed so rapidly in the last 20, and especially the last 10 years, that even the smallest adjustments to feeding, training, and technology have drastically bigger impacts than we ever thought possible because let’s be real, this was a sport which for most of its history was basically run on drugs and vibes. Now exploits don’t just have to come from artificially enhancing the body, reducing drugs (should they be widely present in the first place) to only one of many tools in the toolkit instead of the predominant one.
For the riders collectively, that is a far better situation to be riding in even if it doesn’t completely eradicate doping, something I think will always exist in one form or another. Personally, if I’m a struggling GC hopeful, I’d rather sleep a few more hours and work on my TT position in a wind tunnel than have a needle in my arm and subsequently be forced to endlessly lie to the public.
Learning to live with the ick of cycling dominance, while accepting that skepticism is warranted, also requires understanding that throughout cycling history, the truth, whatever it is, has come out. Sometimes it takes years. Decades. Cycling is not as sophisticated as, say, the CIA. Mistakes are made. Riders are busted. People are punished.
The worst offenders in the sport’s history have met their very real downfall – not necessarily through the medicalized anti-doping system, but through a breakdown in the social bonds that facilitate doping – through whistleblowers and their journalists, criminal investigators, and a lot of people who can’t live with the pressure of keeping up a facade of lies for so long no matter how much it benefits them. Compared to the medicalized anti-doping system, the track record of social fissure among cheaters is frankly pretty good. It may not have swept up everyone who doped, especially in the pre-EPO era, but it did sweep up the highest-profile cheaters time and time again, hence why we are skeptical in the first place.
To have faith in the sport requires also having faith in human beings and their very real flaws, flaws which can bring down that which once felt unassailable. It is difficult to have faith in this sport in a time when the word ‘alien’ is on everyone’s lips. But, as Karl Marx once wrote, “Nothing that is human is alien to me.” The same can be said about cycling.
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